Breaking Up with Your Words
A favor, please:
My last novel, All This Could Be Yours, is on the shortlist for One Book One New Orleans. I would be really honored to be the pick of my adopted city. Could I kindly ask you to vote for mine? It takes two seconds, just an email and a click. Thank you.
We just passed three years of me doing this newsletter year-round. When I started it I had half the subscribers I do now and I thought I’d give it a shot for a while and see what happened. I really wanted to share my knowledge in a wider way. That felt important to me. And who knew how long we would all be at home? It seemed like a good use of my time, and I was desperate to find positive things that would help me fill my empty schedule. Now I don’t know what I would do without this community we built here together. I’ll keep doing it for as long as you’ll have me!
I’m leaving the comments and emails open today in case you want to make any suggestions for topics you’d like me to address or have any particular questions or just want to say hello.
A few months ago I was working on what I called “the lean edit” of my novel, and I cut 18,000 words in ten days. I ultimately cut a total of 24,000 words.
I did this by being merciless and unsentimental. How do you edit? By being fucking ruthless. Start with that. It will all feel risky, but you most forge ahead.
And how do you know when you’re done? When there’s no more story left to tell. This is sort of an abstract and dreamy answer, but we are talking about our imagination of course, where the word count doesn’t even matter except as an exercise, a guideline. In fact, there is no math to it at all.
Sometimes I get asked about the words I throw away, too. Where do I keep them, do I worry if I’ll need them again, do I think about them when they’re gone? Do I remember what I left behind?
I am here to tell you: You’ll never miss a thing. Maybe you’ll mourn them a little bit before you cut them. I did. I couldn’t believe I had to say goodbye. For a few days, I actually had a sense of embarrassment. That I couldn’t make the book work the way I had wanted to. That I had failed at my ambitions. That I hadn’t honored these characters and my choices. All those dreams watered-down and faded.
Then I realized I had done the thing I had set out to do: I had written that version of the book. Now I was going to write a new one, a better one, more concise and to the point. I was going to clear away all the extraneous stuff and tell the core story. Goodbye extra words. It was nice knowing you.
You won’t miss a thing when they’re gone. You won’t sit up nights wondering about where those words are now. And anyway, you know where they are. They were written, they had a life, and they helped you to figure out the current universe of your story. In my mind the few characters I cut in the book still existed in the story of the book — we just didn’t meet them on the page anymore. But they still informed the lives and choices of my main character. I learned about the bigger story through the act of writing them. So I said goodbye to them even if I don’t have to say goodbye to the lessons learned.
Finally, at the beginning of September, for better or worse, I turned the book into my editor. I did have this sense of peace when I turned it in. Like either this was the correct version of the book, or this book was not supposed to exist at all. There was no other way to tell this story, or if there was, I didn’t want to write it.
I was nervous, too. I rely on these books to pay my bills. They are my main source of income. I thought I was correct but there was a chance my editor wouldn’t like it. People don’t like things all the time. Still, I thought I had done a good job, been good at my job, and that was all I could do.
I am just trying to be honest with all of you. Peaceful and nervous, nervous and peaceful. This is my tenth book and I still feel this way! There is no guarantee of anything. We remain unsteady forever in this career, but we do it because we love it and when it’s right, and everything is working, it’s the only thing that feels quite like it.
I will leave you with this: this week I found out my editor loved what I had done with book. I felt relief, I felt peace, and I felt joy at receiving praise from someone important in my life. (We only get a positive editor’s letter every few years or so! Also she is very good at writing them.) I did not feel triumph, because that had already come with making the edits and knowing I was turning this book into a sleek new version. The real power comes from exercising your skills.
Thanks for being here, and I hope you have a healthy, safe and productive week.